He explains that springbok behaviour has changed since the cheetah came to stay. For instance, the females are bunching together in herds of 90 or 100 whereas beforehand this kind of protection of numbers wasn’t needed. ‘Being the top predators in this park has also changed the cheetahs’ own behaviour slightly,’ he adds. Whereas cheetah usually eat quickly even though they’re exhausted from the hunt, here they don’t have to worry as much about lions, spotted hyena or leopard stealing their kill, so they rest for 20 or 30 minutes before they start to feed.
As if to indemnify himself in case we don’t find any cheetah this morning, he explains that the mountainous terrain of the MZNP is problematic when tracking by radio telemetry; the signal bouncing off the mountains can be confusing. Nonetheless, along the Ubejane Loop we pick up the unique signal for Angela – one of the more stand-offish cheetahs, less likely to allow us to approach. We track her to one side of a koppie and then lose her; she has headed off over the top away from us.
Michael decides to leave her alone and set off in search of another signal on a different frequency. Before long we pick up that of a male called White Eyes, a.k.a. ‘the ostrich slayer’, for obvious reasons. We follow him up the 4x4 Juriesdam Loop then cut along a management track that allows Michael to show off his rock-driving skills. After 20 minutes of bundu bashing, we park and set off on foot. But White Eyes is playing hard to get, keeping ahead of us as if on a mission.
After 25 minutes, Michael heads back to the vehicle for one last attempt. More rock crawling until we’re virtually above the rest camp. Funny if we’ve been tracking cheetah for nearly four hours and he’s walking along the camp fence where we started our journey.
Michael is disappointed we haven’t got closer. ‘White Eyes is one of the cheetahs that’s pretty relaxed and let’s you approach on foot to 20 metres,’ he says. But we’re not worried. For us, it’s proof that this is no ‘canned’ experience, just a few humans attempting to share a wild cheetah’s territory for a short while. It’s been a privilege to drive around this scenic park, the mountains wrapping around the horizon in layers; to feel the excitement of knowing just where cheetahs are even if one of them eludes us once we stumble around on foot.
Besides, the outing hasn’t been only about cheetahs. Michael uses the veld as a prompt to point out interesting things like a giant earthworm no less than three-feet long and looking remarkably like a snake. ‘They can grow to six feet,’ he says. He points out an aardwolf burrow, and we admire eland, hartebeest, gemsbok and some of the approximately 700 Cape mountain zebra in the park.
We watch a group of four meerkat and chuckle as one decides to nibble on an itchy tail, only to fall head over heels backwards into the burrow like a clown. We even learn a scientific name that’s bound to stick: buffalo grass’s Latin name is Panicum maximum – easy enough to remember because if you’re on foot when you see one of these nasty-minded creatures, you ‘panic to the maximum’.
Having tracked Angela to the side of a koppie and White Eyes across more than one high mountain, we joke that here in the Mountain Zebra National Park, even the cheetah are ‘mountain cheetah’. ‘In the only cheetah kill I’ve seen here from start to finish,’ Michael tells us, ‘we later noted from the springbok carcass that one front leg was badly broken in the chase across the rocks.’
Having walked those rocky mountainsides in pursuit of White Eyes, we’re not surprised. We knew cheetahs were fast, we just hadn’t understood that they could be as nifty across rocky 4x4 territory as they are on the open grasslands.
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